Thursday, April 21, 2011

ISRO's dead end in space

Just like some of its rockets, India’s space agency is losing direction. By being more open, it can begin to stop the slide.

April is the cruellest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land, a poem noted for its rich metaphors and allusions that describe a soul’s struggle in the post World War I moral decay. In the next few weeks, India’s space agency will experience that firsthand as the unforgiving gaze of public scrutiny turns towards it. Two high-stake launches — that of a polar orbiting rocket and a communication satellite — are scheduled for this month and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) cannot afford to go wrong with them. The unqualified admiration it elicited from the public for its success with the moon mission in 2009 seems like a distant memory now. A year of glitches in satellites and rockets rounded off with allegations of a scam has put ISRO under immense pressure and its credibility is in question like never before.

If nothing else, ISRO has been guilty in recent years of letting its public image deteriorate steadily and of doing nothing to arrest the slide by encouraging an open debate about its functioning. The situation spun out of control when a series of mishaps hit and the public turned sceptical about the space agency. The failure of the indigenously developed cryogenic engine in April 2010 and then the crash of the launch vehicle GSLV-F06 in December were bad enough, but the nation soon came in for another nasty surprise: The ISRO-Devas Multimedia deal for broadband spectrum that politicians and media described as a scam bigger than the 2G corruption scandal.

The opinion in the scientific community is more nuanced but no less critical. They see a huge public organisation that is losing its research edge and slipping into a bureaucracy; a place where communication has broken down with the external world as well as within. They say ISRO is still full of honest people and that the Devas deal was not a scam at all; but they also say the organisation is straying from its core ideals. ISRO officials did not agree to be interviewed and failed to answer a detailed questionnaire from Forbes India on these issues.

ISRO can hardly afford to get mired in organisational hiccups when the space race is heating up. China has made rapid strides in the last five years, putting a man in space. Advanced nations are moving in to colonise space and use it for their strategic advantage. For India to remain in this game, ISRO must buckle up and perform quickly.

More specifically, a whole lot of important missions will suffer if ISRO delays launching a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) with an indigenously developed cryogenic engine. At stake is not just the future of two big announced missions — Chandrayaan-2 in 2013 and the manned flight to the moon in 2015 — but significant commercial opportunities to sell its services to the rest of the world.

The satellite launch market is seeing a boom with geostationary satellites getting bigger and more complex to meet the burgeoning communication needs of a connected world. Paris-based consulting firm Euroconsult expects this trend to continue till 2018. India must rush to exploit this opportunity before the window closes. India and China are the two forces that can challenge the market leader, Russia. But poor reliability of GSLV will not only dent ISRO’s commercial prospects but even its image, which is directly related to India’s prestige.

Up, Up and Ouch
Failure is hardly a bad thing. Or uncommon in the world of space research. The fact that India’s space agency is seeing more failures now “shows that ISRO has reached a certain level of maturity which certainly calls for modern governance,” says Steve Bochinger, president of Euroconsult North America. Other space agencies have similarly struggled with launch failures, organisational bottlenecks or confusion about long-term vision that ISRO is experiencing right now.

But then, a culture of openness, leadership and a high standard of accountability are the prescription for cure. And sadly ISRO ranks low in those departments.

Take the case of the crash of GSLV-F06 (with an imported cryogenic engine) in December 2010. A Failure Analysis Committee was formed to look into it but experts associated with the exercise say they are not aware if it “is completed and a cohesive report prepared”. The Committee chairman, former ISRO boss G. Madhavan Nair, had given varying explanations as the work was in progress and a final report would have cleared the air.

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